Public Understanding of Science
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P U S
Historical evidence for nature
disconnection in a 70-year time
series of Disney animated films
Anne-Caroline Prévot-Julliard and Romain Julliard
Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris, France
The College of Wooster, OH, USA
The assumed ongoing disconnection between humans and nature in Western societies represents a profoundly
challenging conservation issue. Here, we demonstrate one manifestation of this nature disconnection, via an
examination of the representation of natural settings in a 70-year time series of Disney animated films. We
found that natural settings are increasingly less present as a representation of outdoor environments in these
films. Moreover, these drawn natural settings tend to be more and more human controlled and are less and less
complex in terms of the biodiversity they depict. These results demonstrate the increasing nature disconnection
of the filmmaking teams, which we consider as a proxy of the Western relation to nature. Additionally, because
nature experience of children is partly based on movies, the depleted representation of biodiversity in outdoor
environments of Disney films may amplify the current disconnection from nature for children. This reduction
in exposure to nature may hinder the implementation of biodiversity conservation measures.
communication about nature, conservation of biodiversity, environmental generational amnesia, media,
More and more people live in cities, and most children in Western countries grow up ex natura, as
did their parents and grandparents (Miller, 2005). Fifty years ago, the vast majority of people had
at least one relative involved in farming or had free access to a large natural area, but our rural
origin is becoming both temporally and psychologically remote. Not only are people less likely to
live near natural settings, they are also increasingly less likely to recreate in them (Myers, 2012;
Anne-Caroline Prévot-Julliard, UMR7204 CNRS-MNHN-UPMC, CESCO – Centre d’écologie et des Sciences de la
Conservation, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, CP 51, 55 rue Buffon, Paris 75005, France.
519042PUS0010.1177/0963662513519042Public Understanding of SciencePrévot-Julliard et al.
2 Public Understanding of Science
Pergams and Zaradic, 2008). They are less and less concerned about the interconnection between
humans and the rest of the biosphere (Koger and Winter, 2010).
While people are living farther from actual experience with the natural environment, the preva-
lence of biodiversity as an issue on the political agenda and for the media audience is increasing.
The term “biodiversity” is used here to focus on concerns about the current decrease and degrada-
tion of ecosystems and natural plant and animal species, almost entirely due to human activities
(Rands et al., 2010). For example, in an analysis of the covers of Time magazine between 1923 and
2011, Meisner and Takahashi (2013) found that depictions of environmental issues and nature,
almost always presented in terms of problems, have increased over the decades. In parallel, the
Eurobarometer (2007) indicates that European people are aware of biodiversity and conservation
issues. However, despite social discourses and individual awareness, biodiversity is still not inte-
grated in individual everyday behaviors and practices (Davies et al., 2012).
This gap between intentions and actions may be related to individual intimate disconnection
with nature (Clayton, 2003, 2012; Hinds and Sparks, 2008). Pyle (2003) speaks about the extinc-
tion of experience, Louv (2008) is concerned with a possible nature-deficit disorder, and Kahn
(1999) has described environmental generational amnesia. All these authors use the term “nature”
to describe living elements in our environment, i.e., plants, animals and micro-organisms. In the
rest of this text, we use the term “green nature” to refer to this definition and this phenomenon.
In general, the possible decrease in nature-connectedness is a concern (Schultz et al., 2004)
because of the possibility that it will also decrease concern about, and appreciation for, the health
of the natural environment. Examining the historical reality of this nature disconnection is impor-
tant in order to understand the basis of modern attitudes and consider possible interventions to
strengthen the relationship between humans and nature, and consequently between human concern
about biodiversity issues and challenges.
With a reduction in direct experiences in the natural environment, people’s experiences of
nature are more reliant on the media. Despite the increased attention to the environment as a politi-
cal or news topic, researchers have found reductions in media representations of the environment
over time. McComas et al. (2001) found decreasing attention to depictions of the environment in
non-news entertainment and fictional shows on television over just a 6-year period. Podeschi
(2007) documented a reduction in the representation of natural settings (described as “the obvi-
ously ‘natural,’ like a wilderness landscape” (p. 304)) in general audience magazines between 1945
and 1980. The increasing distance from nature that is found even in the media can affect attitudes
about environmental issues. In a study by Good (2009), heavy television viewing was negatively
correlated with environmental attitudes among a sample of environmentalists. However, viewing
of non-fictional television, which included things like nature documentaries, had no such effect.
Meanwhile, there is evidence that including more depictions of nature in the media could have a
positive impact: Smith and Joffe (2013) found that the visual images of global warming in the
media, more than textual descriptions, seemed to affect public understandings of the topic.
The potential impact of a disconnection from nature is even more alarming when children are the
audience. Attitudes, values, and concerns about the environment are strongly influenced by early
experiences, and people’s tendencies to interact with nature may be largely set by the time they are
adults (Chawla, 2009; Louv, 2008). Such interactions are decreasing. In previous decades, bored
children might go outside and explore natural environments, but now entertainment is always avail-
able through videogames and social media. As a consequence, children have less knowledge about
the natural world (Myers, 2012). Even in media directed toward children, nature is receding. A recent
analysis of children’s books found decreased attention to nature over the period 1938–2008: using
winners of the Caldecott award (a children’s book award) as their sample, the researchers found a
reduced representation of natural environments and of wild animals over time (Williams et al., 2012).
Prévot-Julliard et al. 3
In this study, we further explored recent historical evidence of nature disconnection in
Western societies, by examining how natural environments are depicted in media. Because of
their potential to reach a broad international audience, we were particularly interested in exam-
ining films. For films that are set in the real world, their depiction of nature is somewhat
dependent on the availability of natural settings. Animated films, however, are more responsive
to the imagination and intentions of the filmmaker (although technological innovations may
help or complicate the depictions of plants and/or animals for both types of films). Thus, to
assess changes over time in individuals’ exposure to nature, we studied depictions of green
nature in animated films’ settings. More precisely, we investigated such changes in the repre-
sentation of green nature in a 70-year time series (1937–2010) provided by Disney animated
films. To investigate the role of technology, we included Pixar films in our analyses and tested
our variables of interest in both Disney (n = 51) and Disney-Pixar (n = 60) films. Indeed, even
if Pixar films have their own agenda and specificities, their purchase by Disney in 2006 may
reflect common visions.
Disney films are part of Western culture and tend to influence the mental representations and
development of many generations of children throughout the world (Sammond, 2005). Disney
films present modern myths, and they all include natural elements and animals (Whitley, 2008).
Although they often are based on well-known and classic tales, Disney films also reflect the social
representations and meanings of the time in which they were produced (Sammond, 2005). We
therefore assumed that the representation of green nature in each film reflects both the filmmakers’
own relationship with nature and the team’s perception of the public expectations. We hypothe-
sized that attention to green nature in the animated films would decrease over time in response to
the diminishing familiarity with this green nature by the filmmaker teams. In particular, we antici-
pate that decreasing familiarity with nature would lead to a reduction in detail in depictions of
green nature in the settings.
We assessed the representation of nature in two different dimensions:
– The presence of green nature in the film (time-proportion in outdoor settings where green liv-
ing elements were represented), and more specifically, the presence of wild versus cultivated
nature (time-proportion during these green nature settings where wild nature was represented).
We compared the respective presence of wild and cultivated natures, referring to the scientific
assessment of biodiversity, which excludes crops, domestic gardens and other cultivated ele-
ments of nature.
– The complexity of drawn nature (number of animal species present in the film across all
scenes). We chose species number as a proxy of complexity of depicted environments, refer-
ring to a classical indicator of biodiversity complexity and functioning by ecologists and con-
servation biologists, i.e., the species richness (Hooper et al., 2005).
Under the hypothesis of growing extinction of experience, we predicted two different processes.
First, the tendency to locate stories in natural settings decreases with time owing to the reduced
presence of natural environments in everyday life. Second, the way of drawing or depicting set-
tings includes fewer and fewer natural elements, based on the changing knowledge and mental
representation of the filmmakers.
Returning to our variables of interest, we therefore predicted that (1) green nature is less and
less present in the films with time; (2) when green nature is present, it is more and more a cultivated
one; (3) depicted nature is less and less complex with time, as reflected in a decreasing number of
animal species in the settings.
4 Public Understanding of Science
We considered all 60 animated feature films that were distributed for viewing by the public between
1937 (Snow White) and 2010 (Tangled). We considered only the original versions and excluded
sequels from our analysis (see online appendix). These 60 films include 9 films produced by Pixar
(from 1995 to 2009). We thus split each analysis into two parts, excluding and then including Pixar
We first defined 7 categories of settings a priori based on the distinction between so-called wild
and domesticated (or cultivated) types of nature in Western culture (Descola and Pälsson, 1996),
which were further grouped into four general categories (Table 1): outdoor green nature settings,
outdoor non-green nature settings, indoor, others.
We then scanned each film with CAPTIV L-2100 software (http://www.teaergo.com/docs/
CAPTIV-L2100_EN.pdf) and timed each scene within each category of predefined settings.
We classified a scene as being “green nature” as soon as there was at least one element of veg-
etation on the screen.
In parallel, we listed all of the animal species appearing in the film and counted the number of
animal species included in the settings (i.e., not characters) for each film. Animals that played a
role in the plot, i.e. that spoke and/or advanced the action, were thus not included in this tally. We
made this decision to avoid the “anthropomorphized animals” problem discussed by Williams et al.
(2012) in their analysis of children’s books.
We restricted our species observations to animals because different forms (assigned as species)
were much easier to distinguish than for vegetation, especially in the settings. Moreover, the rec-
ognition of different plant species may be dependent on the type of technology used and the ability
to depict fine details such as leaf patterns. To avoid bias related to technological abilities in the
assessment of animal species, we did not rely on naturalistic characteristics; we considered for
instance two birds as different species as soon as they were depicted with different colors.
We computed then three different parameters for each film: (1) the proportion of the film dura-
tion that showed natural outdoor living settings compared with the total duration of all scenes show-
ing outdoor settings; (2) the proportion, among this previously calculated natural settings duration,
of scenes showing cultivated natural settings; (3) the number of animal species in the settings.
We modeled the relationship between the proportion of duration of natural settings among outdoor
settings, and the production year, with a linear model. We checked that residuals were normally
Table 1. Characterization of the categories of settings.
Grouped categories Categories of collected data Details
Outdoor natural settings Outdoor wild settings Forest, countryside
Outdoor cultivated settings Crops, urban parks, urban vegetation,
Other outdoor settings Outdoor mineral settings Deserts or rocks without vegetation
Outdoor urban setting Urban setting without vegetation
Other outdoor setting Sky, inside vehicle
Other Zooms on characters, magical scenes
Prévot-Julliard et al. 5
Because the proportion of duration of cultivated settings among natural settings was not nor-
mally distributed, we correlated these proportions with the film production years using a Spearman
rank correlation test.
We modeled the relationship between the species counts and production years with a general
linear model, assuming a quasi-Poisson distribution. Because the species counts were correlated
with the duration of natural outdoor settings, we then controlled for the relation with production
year with this latter duration of outdoor settings in the film.
All of the statistical analyses were performed using R (R Development Core Team, 2010).
In the 51 Disney films excluding Pixar films, we found that the proportion of outdoor scenes with
green nature (i.e., including vegetation) decreased significantly with time (linear model, F1,49 =
7.14, p = 0.01, R² = 0.13). This cannot be attributed to an increased focus on interior spaces, as the
proportion of outdoor scenes compared to the total duration of animated films did not vary signifi-
cantly with time (linear model, p = 0.84).
This time variation could not be explained only by changes in the agenda of the editorial Disney
team. For instance, we found no significant changes after Walt Disney’s death in 1966.
When we included Pixar films in the dataset, these effects were strengthened: the proportion of
outdoor scenes with green nature decreased more significantly with time (linear model, F1,58 = 12,
p = 0.001, R² = 0.17, Figure 1), the proportion of outdoor scenes compared to the total duration of
animated films did not vary significantly with time (linear model, p = 0.79).
Figure 1. Temporal variation in the proportion of natural settings in outdoor scenes in animated Disney
(including Pixar) films.
The line represents the adjusted linear model (confidence intervals shown as dashed lines).
6 Public Understanding of Science
Cultivated nature within natural setting
In the 51 Disney films excluding Pixar films, the relative duration of scenes with human-made
natural settings (i.e., gardens, agricultural areas, fields) appeared to be increasing, albeit not sig-
nificantly, with time (n = 51, Spearman rank correlation, p = 0.10, rho = +0.23). When we included
Pixar films in the dataset, these effects were strengthened (n = 60, Spearman rank correlation, p =
0.09, rho = +0.22). The type of nature represented seems thus increasingly domesticated and con-
trolled with year of production.
Animal species richness
In the 51 Disney films, the species richness (i.e., the number of animal species drawn in settings,
excluding characters) decreases significantly with time (n = 51, quasi-Poisson GLM, Chi-square
test, p = 0.009).
Animal species richness and duration of natural settings were positively correlated (quasi-
Poisson GLM, p = 0.008). Yet, even after having controlled for the duration of natural settings
among outdoor scenes, the animal species richness was still negatively correlated with time (quasi-
Poisson GLM, Chi-square test, p = 0.015).
When we included Pixar films in the dataset, these effects were again strengthened: the animal
species richness (i.e., the number of animal species drawn in settings, excluding characters), a
proxy for the represented complexity of nature, decreases significantly with time (n = 60, quasi-
Poisson GLM, Chi-square test, p = 0.0006).
Animal species richness and duration of natural settings were positively correlated (quasi-Poisson
GLM, p = 0.002). Yet, even after having controlled for the duration of natural settings among out-
door scenes, the animal species richness was still negatively correlated with time (quasi-Poisson
GLM, Chi-square test, p = 0.001, Figure 2).
Our findings support all three hypotheses. First, the representation of outdoor settings changed
profoundly over the 70-year time series of Disney films, which was associated with the appearance
of films with a very limited presentation of green nature in outdoor settings (Hypothesis 1, Figure
1). Over the first 40 years, with almost no exception, the majority of outdoor scenes had green
nature as a background (Figure 1). Over the past 30 years, one-half of all the movies reviewed for
this study had more than half of their outdoor scenes in places without a trace of green nature (such
as a city center). Furthermore, when green nature was shown, it became increasingly represented
as human-influenced (i.e., cultivated; Hypothesis 2) and species poor (i.e. less complex; Hypothesis
3, Figure 2).
Animals and nature are known to be appreciated by children and are therefore widely used in
Disney films (even if the Disney ideology is mostly human centered; McDonald, 2006). Moreover,
environmentalism and environmental awareness clearly entered into the explicit messages of ani-
mated films produced by Disney when Michael Eisner managed its production teams (between
1984 and 2005; Whitley, 2008). This fact reinforces the interpretation of our results in terms of the
extinction of experience: even when there are explicit messages about nature and the environment,
there is a trend for simplification of green nature and its inherent complexity in the settings.
This study adds to evidence that our collective relationship with (and therefore the representa-
tion of) green nature has changed profoundly over the past 70 years. It is true that we have had to
make simple decisions about the complex issue of what counts as nature and what does not. In
Prévot-Julliard et al. 7
particular, we contrasted outdoor settings that include living elements (such as plants, which we
referred to as “green nature”) and outdoor settings without any plant or animal life (e.g. deserts,
ocean depicted only with water). This choice was guided by our final objective to assess media
depictions relevant to the conservation of biodiversity. Our definitions, which are similar to those
in previous research, were intended to trade off the potential to capture complexity and nuance in
favor of criteria that were objective and could be easily replicated. The fact that we found a consist-
ent trend provides some evidence for the validity of our definition. This finding is consistent with
other recent research revealing a decrease in the depiction of natural environments, compared to
that of built environments over time (McComas et al., 2001; Podeschi, 2007; Williams et al., 2012).
The disconnection revealed by our results raises two main concerns, namely individual connec-
tion with nature, and societal representations and understandings. First, the results suggest a
decrease in the extent to which individual connection to nature is being nurtured in Western cul-
tures. The mental and affective connections that are made with nature in childhood have been
shown to affect future pro-conservation behaviors in adults (Hinds and Sparks, 2008). Animals and
green nature seem to play an important role in child development (Kahn, 1999; Myers, 2012).
Animated movies play a role in the vicarious experience of nature in children (Corbett, 2006) and
in the cognitive development of individual relationships with nature, together with direct nature
experiences through encounters in backyards or parks, and indirect nature experiences such as zoo
exhibitions or nature education (Kahn and Kellert, 2002). Video and film consumption is increas-
ing in Western societies, and these vicarious experiences of nature form a larger proportion of
nature experiences. In this context, the fact that nature is represented with less complexity and
biodiversity realism calls into question the future involvement of young generations in environ-
Figure 2. Temporal variation of the animal species richness in animated Disney (including Pixar) films’ settings.
The line represents the adjusted model (confidence intervals shown as dashed lines).
8 Public Understanding of Science
Second, these results suggest that the filmmakers have a decreasing complexity of the represen-
tation of nature, which may be attributed to their own nature disconnect. The increasing distance
of nature may have important consequences for the ability of society to understand and appreciate
the complexity of surrounding natural environments and biodiversity, as well as to involve a large
number of people in conservation issues. Indeed, external discourses about biodiversity and envi-
ronmental problems are likely to be most easily integrated by individuals when they are consistent
with previous understandings. A public that has an overly simplified view of biodiversity and
ecosystems may be less able or likely to engage with scientific discourse about environmental
problems; knowledge is associated with positive attitudes (Gauchat, 2011). Moreover, self-
determination theory postulates that external injunctions could be effective only if they are con-
sistent with our core self, which we all have constructed during our childhood and growth (Ryan
and Deci, 2000). The social gap revealed by our results must therefore not be neglected or under-
estimated in biodiversity conservation discourses and initiatives, which must first consider, let
emerge and accept the actual representations of nature and biodiversity among the particular audi-
ences to whom they are devoted. Understanding and reducing this gap remain important for con-
servation discourses and actions to be accepted by a majority of citizens and to be eventually
We thank the individuals who provided us with copies of Disney films (I. Lafaye, E. Mignon, Villiers’
library), and Solène, Camille, Clémence and Sébastien for their help.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
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Anne-Caroline Prévot-Julliard is a conservation scientist at the CNRS and the French National Museum of
Natural History. She has a PhD in ecology, and she aims to bring conservation biology and conservation
psychology together, to better integrate biodiversity issues in individual and collective behaviors.
Romain Julliard is Professor of Conservation Biology at the French National Museum of Natural History,
studying biodiversity patterns facing global changes.
Susan Clayton, Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology at the College of Wooster, is the author or editor
of several books, including the 2012 Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology. She
has a PhD in social psychology from Yale University and her research focuses on studying and promoting
human concern for the natural environment.